COLUMBIA — Arthur Mehrhoff wants people walking through downtown Columbia to start directing their gaze in an upward direction.
“I don’t know if it’s tunnel vision, but people aren’t looking up,” Mehrhoff said. “These places are really built for pedestrians and for an overall visual experience.”
Mehrhoff, an adjunct professor in the department of architectural studies at MU, looks at downtown architecture as a vital aspect of a city’s identity. He spent this past spring working with the Downtown Revitalization and Economic Assistance for Missouri Initiative, which educates small towns on restoring and maintaining urban downtowns.
DREAM has held workshops in Joplin, Cape Girardeau, St. Charles, Rolla, Kirksville, Warrensburg, Liberty and Boonville.
“It was a form of leadership training,” Mehrhoff said. “We try to give (civic) leaders information so that they have the skills and knowledge to go back to their communities and lead a downtown visioning process there.”
Usually, when he starts working in a community, he gets some coffee first.
“We always found the local coffee shop — the hub — and sort of worked out from there,” Mehrhoff said. “Those can be the best indicators of where the downtown is. Most of these areas have an interesting old place that someone has fixed up and that everyone goes for coffee. Those are good signs.”
Bringing new businesses into older downtown buildings not only attracts more people and maintains a downtown’s historical vitality but also saves the city money. By keeping these structures, cities bypass the costly process of demolition and rebuilding, Mehrhoff said.
“In a sense, downtowns represent existing energy, creativity,” Mehrhoff said. “The streets are there, the infrastructure is there — the more we use it, the more value it has.”
In addition to harnessing the historical aesthetic of downtown architecture, Mehrhoff stresses tailoring business options to the city’s needs.
“A lot of cities spend time trying to recruit business from outside the community, but I think one of the best things they can do is talk to existing business owners and people and see what they’re interested in,” Mehrhoff said. “Are they interested in expanding, in hiring new people, in selling products that people downtown could be buying instead of buying from outside of the community?”
Mehrhoff said Columbia is moving in the right direction by taking downtown design and historic preservation more seriously. But trying to promote pedestrian traffic in a time of minivans and sport utility vehicles poses its own problem in many downtown areas, he noted.
“They (downtowns) weren’t designed for automobiles,” Mehrhoff said. “If you look at a downtown, buildings are packed close together. They have density, which makes it interesting. Because if everyone is driving downtown, it becomes a matter of ‘where are you going to put your horse today?’”
Mehrhoff suggested that urban downtowns still represent a gathering point and can be a powerful connector for the public.
“It’s one of the key places in a region where everyone seems to have a place,” Mehrhoff said. “Other areas we might spread ourselves out by age, race, lifestyle ... but downtown, everybody seems to stick together. For example, during our New Year’s Eve celebrations or on the Fourth of July.”
Mehrhoff said he is encouraged by the work he sees going into downtown Columbia, but that it will take more than city planning to give the area vitality.
“Essentially, downtown, if you do it right, can become a stage,” Mehrhoff said. “But you still have to put on a play.”